I have to admit, I depend on quite a lot of things. Some of which, such as the ability to feel safe in my own skin, I ought to be able to take for granted. And the fact that I cannot take that one for granted, well, certain people out there ought to take a good, hard look at themselves about that one.
Writing is like a game. Go To Jail is replaced by Loss Of Drive or Loss Of Inspiration. The famous GO square is replaced by Sudden Burst Of Inspiration. I find I land on that one every time I watch a good film, such as Mad Max: Fury Road. If you are one of those troglodytes who have not seen it yet and are still watching baby-shit like Bitchface Purrfect Fifty or whatever, leave this journal right away and do not come back. But sometimes, you do something out of the ordinary, something you thought about and then thought about some more and finally took a flying leap and actually did.
Which brings me to what I bought last night during the late shopping whipped-up frenzy. The shelf price of this item was a hundred and ninety-five dollars, AUD. I haggled the sales guy down to a hundred and sixty-five. Yes, Asstralian retail prices are no matter what way you look at or get it, sucker prices, but that is a point for another article.
The question here is, with so many cheap alternatives and entry-level items, why have I upgraded to a set of headphones that retail for the lion’s share of what I pay in rent each week?
I think it started when I first purchased an iPod Classic. At the time, my headphones as I used them with other devices such as a MiniDisc recorder consisted of cheap, no-name headphones retailing for $30 or less. On MiniDisc recorders, with the ATRAC3 compression (which, unlike MP3 or AAC or the like, is actually relatively transparent), these kinds of headphones seemed sufficient.
But a problem arose when I began downloading music in the FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format and using the same headphones with the iPood I transferred it to. Bluntly put, songs began to sound very different on the iPood compared to the open speakers I normally use. (I have computer speakers with a subwoofer on my computer, obviously, and a set of eight speakers including a subwoofer on my home theatre. Music sounds very different on those eight speakers, too.) So I began buying branded headphones. Skullcandy ended up being my brand of choice for a while, but then I noticed a problem. The fifty-dollar Skullcandy headphones I typically developed faults that made them unusable around eighteen months after purchase. They sounded beautiful compared to what I was used to, but I grew tired in a hurry of having to replace them so unpredictably.
Which brings us to today, and my first pair of what people call “studio” headphones.
Sennheiser’s HD 280 headphones, as I mentioned, retail at my local JB Hi-Fi store for a hundred and ninety-five dollars ($195). I haggled thirty dollars off the price, and for that sum, I now understand why people buy studio headphones.
My DyING BRIDE’s twelve-minute epic The Crown Of Sympathy sounds like an entirely different song through these headphones. I do not mean that in the sense that every tone or note is different. No, I mean something that is far harder to quantify to the “MP3 is perfectly okay” troglodytes.
Imagine for a second that you can represent sound in words. The Crown Of Sympathy generally consists of two variant instrument configurations. Through a pair of Skullcandy $50 headphones from a FLAC source, you might represent it like this: vocals-guitar-guitar-bassdrums-violins or vocals-guitar-guitar-bassdrums-keyboards. This is obviously a big improvement on MP3/whatever’s vocgitgitdrumkeyb (and I am being generous in describing how MP3 represents your typical My DyING BRIDE song).
Well, through the Sennheiser HD 280s, The Crown Of Sympathy sounds like vocals—guitar-guitar—bass—drums—violin—or-keyboards. The way we were promised it would sound on our little box home stereos in the 1980s when Compact Disc was new.
So now I am putting them to what I think an ultimate acid test. Black Sabbath’s ninth album, 13, is a mostly very-good record with one terrible hamstring. A certain dickhead called Rick Rubin decided there should be as little space between the bass, drums, and guitars as possible. Using my representation from earlier, the 44.1 kHz CD sounds like VOCALS-DRUMSBASSGUITAR, and even that is under-telling it. If it were possible to write all of these words in standard ASCII so that they are on top of one another, squashing one another, that would be the most accurate representation of Rick Rubin’s production.
In 96 kHz, it is a slightly different story. The bass and guitars can breathe, and the drums are working in concert with the bass instead of smothering them.
Through the Sennheiser HD 280s, the 96 kHz representation of this album has never sounded better. In 44.1 kHz, the HD 280s struggle a little more, but still, more open, breathing, and alive than anything I have listened to this album on before. The biggest difference is essentially the drums lose the definition and the bass and guitars are squashing their faces together.
As a final note of comparison, I also occasionally sit on my laptop and listen to downmixes of film soundtracks whilst I type the stories. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that I watch repeatedly, often. It is not so much what I heard before and now hear differently now, as it is the things I did not hear in the lower parts of the soundtrack. When we first see the ghostly child asking Max where he was, other voices including those of the pursuing War Boys stood out for the first time.
So to cut a long story short, you probably fall into one of three categories. You may be thinking MP3s through a set of twenty dollar headphones are fine, in which case, I do not want to know you. You may be curious as to why people spend high sums of money for studio headphones. Listening to your favourite materials through the HD 280s will soon answer that question (the Violent Femmes song Breakin’ Up just then, now Skepticism’s masterpiece The Raven And The Backward Funeral).
There is a third group that I wish to address in closing. During the conversation with the salesman, I asked him a simple new-to-this question. As studio headphones go, how likely am I to still be satisfied with the HD 280s in future? And part of the response is that I would be much happier with them than with anything the Beats brand offers.
Beats headphones are not studio headphones. They are overpriced versions of the headphones I used to spend twenty or so dollars on in the early 2000s. And the HD 280s are a good place for you to start learning the difference.
In basic terms, Sennheiser’s HD 280s represent the best kind of value for money. They have breathed new life into my music collection, for starters. Before I purchased them, I was feeling dizzy and confused as a result of having wandered around my favourite locale longer than I intended. I was apprehensive after having just spent the money (hey, when you barely see a thousand dollars every two weeks, $165 is a big spend). When I got them home, plugged them in, and put them to the test, I had a big old grin on my face.
I honestly cannot think of a higher way to recommend this product. Except that old Faith No More B-sides are currently sounding even better than before on the HD 280s.